"Parsha to the Point" – Yitro 5777

Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23)

Rabbi David Stav 

The “Ten Commandments” is the “piece de resistance” of the Torah, where we read of the connection between Hashem and man, and where man receives direct instructions from Hashem on what he must do, and that from which he must abstain.
The first time we came across anything like this is in the Torah’s description of the creation of Adam. We know that this story did not have a happy ending. Adam and his wife faltered, eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which they were specifically commanded not to eat. That sin resulted in a terrible punishment. “You shall bear children in anguish…You shall eat bread by the sweat of your brow,” [Gen. 3:16,19] and more.
What would happen now? Should men be given commandments once again? Hashem decided that it was worth a try. Indeed, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, when Hashem revealed Himself to the entire nation, became one of the formative events of the history of mankind. The great treasure we were given there was the two tablets of the law, in which the famous “Ten Commandments” were etched.
Those commandments serve as an outline of the entire Torah. In analyzing them, I would like to reflect on something visual, that might seem somewhat technical. It is virtually impossible not to notice that the first five commandments are particularly long, while (most) of the remaining commandments, like “You shall not steal” and “You shall not murder”, are quite brief. Why are the first five commandments so long?
To illustrate this point, let us analyze the second commandment, which focuses on idol worship and creation: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them…” [Ex. 20:3].
Had it wished to, the Torah could have similarly expounded on the prohibitions of stealing and murder. There are also prohibitions against harming the young and the elderly, the sick and the healthy, and so on. Nevertheless, when discussing idols, the Torah goes into great detail, describing the images that we may not create, and the rituals that we may not observe, while the commandment prohibiting murder is a total of two words. How can we account for this stark contrast in emphasis?
The Torah clearly takes a very harsh stance against these actions. After all, at the beginning of the Book of Bereishit, the text takes a harsh stance against bloodshed, stating that “one who sheds the blood of his fellow man… his blood shall be shed, for man was created in the image of Hashem.” [Gen. 9:6]
Every human being is considered to have a divine spark inside, and harming any person is harming Hashem Himself. No greater expression of disdain for murder exists. Still, we wonder why only two words are used here, while three verses, comprised of dozens of words, are dedicated to the prohibition of creating idols.
The truth is that we could expand this question to include most of the books of the prophets, who had devoted most of their efforts to confronting idol worship.
When studying the Bible, any high school graduate must have asked himself or herself dozens of times: “These books all look the same. Most of the time, the prophets were telling the people not to fall into the trap of idol worship, though the people almost always do. Why is it so important for the Torah to combat idol worship? What draws so many people to the practice, and why do the prophets keep failing?”
It turns out that it all begins here, in Parshat Yitro. People are led astray by their own eyes, and not necessarily by their own thoughts. As early as Adam’s sin, the forbidden fruit was described as “pleasant to look at, and a feast for the eyes” [ibid. 3:6]. The Torah understands that the biggest challenge a person will face at any given point in his life is coping with the gap between what his eyes see and what his sense of reason tells him.
It is safe to assume that many idol-worshippers understood that no statuette could possibly be responsible for the creation of our amazing world. However, it is easier to connect to such an object than to create a bond with a sublime, invisible and intangible Being. The prohibition against idolatry is emphasized because man’s natural inclination is to be drawn toward the material world, where he can feel comfort and warmth, even if he knows them to be a fallacy.
Everyone knows that murdering, stealing and committing adultery are unethical actions, so there is no need to expand on these statements. During creation, the world needed to be taught that every human being was, in fact, created in the image of Hashem, and this is what all that would be said from that point on.
People continued to murder, but they no longer tried to justify murder as an ethical act. The Torah understands that it isn’t enough for man to merely acknowledge that a particular action is prohibited. Man must also develop his sense of imagination and his emotions, so that they form a bond with the world of reason.
Therefore, man must struggle against those who fabricate misrepresentations. The Torah understands that a bitter struggle against idol worship will also reduce the murder rate. The world of idols and false gods is one where man’s physical senses gain control of his sense of reason and morality.
Quite often, we ask ourselves how a dignified person could ever commit acts that any child knows are terrible. This is the message of the “Ten Commandments” convey: do not create idols – which breed a culture of immorality – and put reason ahead of all else.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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